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On His 20th Birthday, A Young Man Shares The Constant Terror Of Being Gay In Uganda

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Editor’s Note: Even after Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) was struck down, LGBTQ people in country have been facing violent backlash from both the state, and society. Irakowze, a young gay man from Uganda, has faced this first hand. Today, on his twentieth birthday, he reached out to Cake to share his personal story of facing verbal and physical attacks. Irakowze’s story is a stark reminder of the cruel and hard circumstances so many queer individuals face to this day. How can this be allowed to continue? Join us as Cake stands in solidarity with #PrideUganda and share this story so that we can help fight homophobia everywhere.

At least if I die, you will know something about my life. You will have something to say at my funeral.

Sometimes I wake up and I think I am dead. I have to actually let my consciousness settle for a moment.

I am not sure if I am scared of being dead, of dying in my sleep. It would be peaceful and I would be free of the nightmare I am living now. Then I get up. I look around at walls. The headache starts. It’s a dull painful pressure of the small walls, of the flat in Kampala I have been hiding within, narrowing in. Imagine your outward vision narrowing and narrowing, till you are almost looking through a funnel embedded in darkness with a tiny opening for light at the end.

I see the world now through bars on windows, chased back to a hiding place. I am in prison. I’ve been socially convicted of a crime worse than the nightmares of waking up dead: I was born Gay. I had no choice in the matter. I was born as Gay as the people murdered in a nightclub in Orlando. I am as Gay as the LGBTQ+ flags held by activists in India fighting Section 377. I am as LGBTQ as the Transgender woman murdered last month in Turkey. We are collective outlaws and ghosts of histories that will be rewritten, and our omissions, pain, oppression, repression, marginalization, and our battles to live will be written in statistics. That is where I am right now. I am between life and statistic. I wonder about my family who had fled to Uganda from Rwanda during the 1994 genocide where 800,000 existences became statistics, if they knew when they exiled me from their home at sixteen years old for being Gay that I would become a statistic too.

I don’t think my parents knew that, like them, I would fight to survive. I walked miles to the Ugandan capital Kampala with a small bag of my belongings. I survived hunger. I survived hunger. One night of hunger can only be summarized in an entire existence of hours and day long seconds passing into withering existence. I survived sexual exploitation by European tourists, men who were two and three times my sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year old body. I survived the nights of wondering if this was all that life offered. I survived the nights where the voice of the earth responded to my “Why me?” with “How dare you, you’re still alive.” I saved my survival and transformed my existence into a passion for preservation. Now, my existence, passion and survival are in question. The dream of being a stylist in East Africa Fashion Week was lived. I was on my way to making it past survival, when I was identified and “outed” in “Red Pepper.” Red Pepper is a chronicle of homophobic rage published daily in Uganda. There was my picture, shared from my Facebook without my permission on a printed page. I made it! I didn’t know I had made it until the men that I didn’t know were following me in a market grabbed me. Two men held me while the rest took turns punching me, kicking me and spitting on me. My blood, dripping like a mural defiling my existence, fell onto the dirt. I watched each drop, by drop, by drop, as if each second was an eternity of an eternity of starvation. Then the last punch that I remember sent me out of the grip of the two men’s hands who were holding my limp body. On the floor between existence, survival, nightmare and a statistic, I felt a foot kick into my chest. I was still alive because I felt it. One man reached into my pocket and said, “Now we can find you anytime, homosexual,” as he took my wallet. I survived as they ran off.

I survived several more of those.

My phone would go off day and night, “We know where you are dirty homosexual.” Ring after startling ring. “We see you in the ripped jeans, we’re going to skin your homosexual ass.” I survived because I looked out the window first. I survived looking both ways, backwards and forwards. I survived because I would be home before dark. I walked out one morning forgetting that I made it and survived to see men waiting for me. I went back into the house. I decided I am leaving. I left. They stalked me. My Facebook image and that paper followed me. Isn’t making it wonderful? I was brutally beaten, this time close to death. I wanted to call the police because being imprisoned for being a homosexual was better than surviving as a homosexual in the social prison of Uganda. Then I remembered the stories of what it was like to be serving time in prison for being a homosexual.

I decided to survive again. A friend took me in and I have been inside ever since I walked in through the door. Now I look at freedom through the funnel of a window between walls caving in. Tomorrow, I will be moved to a new prison. I will look at life through a new window. The day after tomorrow, I will be transported again and again; I will see freedom through the funnel of a new window. I might become a statistic tomorrow. I may become one the day after. I am twenty years old. I have a name that I cannot say. A breath inwardly that exits outwardly second by second of an impossible existence.

Am I alive?

Price of Silence and Pride Uganda Still Stands is working on Urgent Action #Rights4Irakowze, a campaign to demand asylum for Irakowze in Canada. Please sign, share and demand justice for Irakowze.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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